Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Event preview: Scholar traces equality in the Declaration of Independence

June 26, 2014 by NCC Staff


Danielle Allen
Danielle Allen

Political philosopher Danielle Allen will join Chris Phillips, Senior Education Fellow at the National Constitution Center, to take a fresh look at the Declaration of Independence—a document that changed the course of the modern world in 1,337 words—with an eye to its promise of equality.

Allen, a professor of social science at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study and the newly appointed chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board—the first African-American woman to hold that position—is widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America.

In her conversation with Phillips, Allen will draw heavily on her new book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, to tackle the contradictions between ideals and reality in a document that perpetuated slavery.

Her discussion is presented in conjunction with the Constitution Center’s feature exhibition, Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello—a powerful, revealing and deeply personal look at six slave families who lived and worked at Jefferson’s plantation in Virginia.

In the prologue to Our Declaration, Allen explains the rationale behind her latest project.

“The Declaration of Independence matters because it helps us see that we cannot have freedom without equality,” she writes. “It is out of an egalitarian commitment that a people grows—a people that is capable of protecting us all collectively, and each of us individually, from domination.”

“If the Declaration can stake a claim to freedom,” she adds, “it is only because it is so clear-eyed about the fact that the people’s strength resides in its equality.”

Allen also laments popular notions of the relationship between liberty and equality—a misunderstanding she seeks to confront.

“Political philosophers have generated the view that equality and freedom are necessarily in tension with each other,” she says. “As a public, we have swallowed this argument whole. We think we are required to choose between freedom and equality. Our choice in recent years has tipped toward freedom. Under the general influence of libertarianism, both parties have abandoned our Declaration; they have scorned our patrimony.”

“Such a choice is dangerous,” she goes on. “If we abandon equality, we lose the single bond that makes us a community, that makes us a people with the capacity to be free collectively and individually in the first place.”

“I for one cannot bear to see the ideal of equality pass away before it has reached its full maturity,” Allen concludes. “I hope I am not alone.”

This program will be followed by a book sale and signing. Admission is free; groups are welcome. However, reservations are recommended—call 215.409.6700 or order online. Event attendees will also receive $5 admission to see Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello.

Recent Stories on Constitution Daily

Video: The Riley cellphone case lawyers at the National Constitution Center

Event preview: Experts debate campaign finance and the First Amendment

Supreme Court rules that Aereo is illegal

Video: Laurence Tribe explains the John Roberts Court

Sign up for our email newsletter